Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
[Reading Challenge 2019]

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

by Hunter S. Thompson
Random House, 1972
(originally published in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971)

[Challenge # 28 : A book everyone else seems to have read but you have not.]

I’ve heard a lot about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, so that made it a natural for the “Everybody’s read this but me” category. From what I had heard, it is venerated in counterculture circles, as a 1960s (or early 1970s as the case is) journey into drug-addled weirdness and American hypocrisy. Something similar to The Great Acid Kool Aid Test. As a person I find that kind of literature tiresome, but I thought I’d give it a chance. That is the nature of a challenge after all.

Hunter S. Thompson I was familiar with only as the Dr. Duke character from Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic where he’s a sort of black sheep, always pursuing illegal means to make a buck and befouling the liberal ideals of the other characters. I don’t like Dr. Duke much, especially the demeaning way he pushes around his Chinese Communist girlfriend, Honey, and the way she takes it. It’s every American male-female cartoon relationship every written – man’s a jerk, the woman puts up with it Because She Loves Him. It’s a damaging trope that shows no sign of dying. Even cartoons that see themselves as edgy and cynical, like Family Guy, buy into it. But my loathing for the trope is a whole other story.

The novel is a fictionalized account of a trip Thomson and his friend, whom he calls his attorney in the book, take to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle event, but they really use it as a cover for buying and doing drugs, driving around in a fancy car, and eating lots of hotel food. They tell themselves they are looking for the American Dream, but that’s just a cover too. What they are really doing is consuming, which is the American Dream. Like Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz, they possessed what they were looking for all along.

In a story like this I expected the Thompson character to act like a jerk, and he did. His jerkiness arose from pretension, not from any interior flaw such as one would expect from a Greek tragedy play. As I saw it, being in his mid-thirties when the story takes place, he was secretly envious of the wild counterculture youth of the past decade, and set out to outdo them in “drug-fueled excess” and screwing around with the straights, who are all perfectly nice to him and thus deserve being laughed at by the reader for not being in on the joke. It short, he was juvenile. There are flashes of adult wit here and there, but for me it never rose above National Lampoon territory. The sacred cows he attempts to slay are all dead now. I didn’t feel much resonance with it.

The story gets more hallucinogenic and wilder in its last fifth, and I did enjoy that part because it was more of a fantasy and had no grounding in real life. There’s a car chase that recalls a scene in the James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever and the villainous Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd of that movie, who resemble Malcolm McDowell and David Crosby respectively, certainly act like the anarchic Raoul Duke and Gonzo of Thompson book, so I’m betting the scriptwriter stole a scene or two. And I did like the illustrations by Ralph Steadman, which seem to be parodying Thompson even as they depict his truth. The illustrator is still active today well into his 70s and producing political cartoons, most recently of Trump.

Raoul Duke sneaking out of a Las Vegas hotel without paying, by Ralph Steadman.

After I read the book a friend pointed me to an article by Thompson that I did like, so I can say I can’t fault his intellect and style; only his pretensions.

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